When Brionna Jones got to the WNBA in 2017, one of the things she remembers most is how Alyssa Thomas tried to help her former Terrapins teammate.
“When I came in my first year, AT was already on the team and that was great, having someone I knew,” said Jones, now entrenched as a two-year starter for the Connecticut Sun. “I played with her my freshman year in college at Maryland, and when I got here, she was always in my ear at practice and just showing me little things. She would always tell me to be ready, you never know when your number is going to be called.”
Jones’ number is called quite frequently these days as the starting center for the Sun, the best team in the Eastern Conference so far this season. Now she’s the veteran helping younger players, including two more former Terps in Kaila Charles and her sister, Stephanie Jones. Thomas, the perennial all-star, is out this season (her eighth) after surgery in January to repair an Achilles injury suffered this winter at a practice for her team in Prague, where — you guessed it — she’s a teammate of Brionna Jones there, as well.
“It’s tough without her but we’ve been figuring it out and playing well,” said Jones.
Jones, a 6-foot-3 Aberdeen, Md., product and 2017 Maryland grad is averaging 30.8 minutes, 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 81.5 percent at the free-throw line entering Connecticut’s game against Seattle June 13. She is Connecticut’s third leading scorer and rebounder behind 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones, an Upper Marlboro, Md., and George Washington University product, and 6-foot-4 DeWanna Bonner.
All three front-liners were first round draft picks, but the Sun seems to gravitate to Maryland players in particular. Earlier this season, another Terp, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough was a replacement contract pick-up before being released recently.
“It seems we have the Terp connection,” Connecticut general manager and coach Curt Miller said. “I have a great deal of respect for Brenda [Frese]. Brenda and I grew up in the business together, coming through the coaching ranks at the same time. She does such a great job in developing [her players] and preparing them.”
Miller, who was a college coach at Indiana and Bowling Green, inherited Thomas when he arrived in Connecticut in 2015, and he knew what he had in the Maryland All-American who led the Terps to the 2014 Final Four.
“AT is the longest-tenured player in Connecticut history, and we affectionately refer to her as the GOAT,” Miller said. “It was an unintentional consequence of an injury to another post player early in my time that moved her from the [small forward] position to power forward and we never looked back. She has blossomed into arguably the best facilitating forward in the league.”
Thomas entered the season fifth all time in team history in scoring (2,352 points), games played (201) and assists (608). She’s a two-time WNBA All-Star and was on the league’s All-Defensive First Team last season playing alongside Brionna Jones.
Miller drafted Jones, who was first-team All-Big Ten selection three consecutive years, with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft.
“That just started it. Kaila Charles drops in the  draft and we had the opportunity to add someone who we had projected as a first-round pick,” Miller said. “Then we had a depleted roster and players arriving late to camp this year, [and] that gave Stephanie Jones a contract.”
Miller thought the younger Jones could help in early practices and expected her to improve her WNBA resume and maybe land somewhere, but she impressed and earned a Connecticut roster spot.
“She’s a tremendous culture player,” he said. “That’s what she did at Maryland. They were just better with her on the floor. We kept coming back to all the analytics and that was true for us, too.”
The 6-foot-2 rookie has played sparingly in four games, but her sister’s career didn’t take off her first season either.
“She’s doing good,” big sister Brionna said. “In practices she catches on quick. It’s just tough trying to find playing time because we have a lot of really good post players. When her time comes, whenever she gets on the court, she’s going to show what she can do.”
Likewise, Charles, who has averaged 12.4 minutes in seven games this year, is also still feeling her way playing behind Bonner, one of the most respected players in the league. It’s hard for young WNBA players who have a big learning curve to adjust to professional play. Charles was such a driving force at Maryland, but she has had to wait her turn in the pros.
“There are a lot of talented players,” Brionna Jones said. “It’s one through five and everybody here was THAT player in college. It’s a little tougher and there’s a lot to learn about playing defense and knowing where you have to be on offense and making reads. The game moves faster than it does in practice.”
Jones thinks it’s just a matter of playing with confidence when Charles gets her chance. She produced last year in “the bubble,” averaging 5.4 points in 17.8 minutes per game, even starting seven contests.
Jones averaged just six minutes a game as a rookie, and she has come a long way to become a standout player. Fans that watched her play at Maryland aren’t surprised. She has soft hands, runs the floor hard, and possesses an amazing shooting touch around the basket that allowed her to lead the nation in field-goal percentage as a junior (.665) and senior (.690). But her mental game is what drew her to the Sun.
“Brionna Jones just has a great, great mind for the game, and it helps her so much,” Miller said. “The game slows down for Brionna. She sees layers. She sees things before they happen. And then a lot of credit goes to her as she just continues to pour into her physical conditioning, which is at an all-time high. It allows her to play the extended minutes we’ve asked of her the last two years.”
Miller and Brionna Jones both think Walker-Kimbrough will be back in the league somewhere, too. SW-K is a “tweener,” a 5-foot-11 guard who is not really a point guard but like the other Terrapins drawing paychecks in the WNBA, she can do a lot of things to help a team win.
“A lot of good players come out of Maryland and Coach B does a good job of getting us ready to go to the pros,” Jones explained. “She makes sure we know the game. She develops our basketball IQ.”
Jones paused for a moment and started to smile.
“And we do all know how to win,” she said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Connecticut Sun